Hiking Telescope Peak: Death Valley’s Highest Mountain

Last Updated on: 14th November 2023, 10:07 pm

While far from the type of excursion most people picture when they think of Death Valley, hiking Telescope Peak is one of the park’s most thrilling and rewarding adventures. The National Park may be home to the lowest point in the Americas, but conquering Death Valley’s highest mountain takes you up to an elevation of 11,043 ft (3366 m) above sea level.

In the following guide, we’ll be covering everything you need to know about hiking Telescope Peak, including essential preparation tips and how to reach the trailhead. You’ll then find a step-by-step description of the hike itself.

For more helpful tips on Death Valley as a whole, also be sure to check the very end of the article.

About This Hike

The trail as seen on AllTrails

THE BASICS: The Telescope Peak hike is a strenuous out-and-back hike up Death Valley National Park’s highest mountain. It’s a 14-mile (22 km) out-and-back hike with an elevation gain of about 3000 ft (914 m).

Getting to the trailhead is an adventure in its own right, which you can learn more about just below.

While Death Valley is known for its extreme heat, Telescope Peak is a notable exception. Given the mountain’s elevation, the trail is covered in snow for much of the year and it only clears up by around mid-June.

The summit stands at 11,043 ft (3366 m) high, and many people experience symptoms of elevation sickness, so be sure to take things slow if you’re feeling dizzy or lightheaded.

Even given its remote location, Telescope Peak is a fairly popular hike and you’ll likely encounter other people throughout the journey.

Beginning from the Mahogany Campground, it took me about 3.5 hours to reach the peak and about 2.5 hours to get back down. But those not stopping to take lots of photos would probably need less time.

RECOMMENDED APPS: For this particular hike, you’re fine with just using Maps.me, a free app which works offline. But for those who’ll be doing lots of hiking throughout the region, you’ll definitely want to have a subscription for either AllTrails or onX Backcountry.

WHAT TO BRING: Given the high elevation of this hike, you don’t need to take the same extreme precautions against heat as elsewhere at Death Valley. But just like any long hike, you’ll need plenty of water and snacks.

While you’ll want at least a few liters of water, bringing too much could end up weighing you down throughout this long and strenuous hike – something I learned the hard way.

A good pair of hiking boots or trail runners are a must for this hike. Trekking poles are also highly recommended. While I did see some people complete the hike without them, most hikers did have them, and I’m certainly glad I brought a pair myself.

You’ll want to wear a few layers for this hike, as it’s quite chilly in the morning. Also, be sure to bring adequate sunscreen as well.

Getting to the Trailhead

The trailhead for Telescope Peak is situated right by the Mahogany Campground, located in the Panamint Range in the west part of Death Valley. Getting there takes about two hours from Furnace Creek, so most people camp at Mahogany the night before the hike.

It’s a beautiful and scenic drive through a remote and mountainous section of Death Valley. While there are numerous hills and some blind turns, things don’t get really challenging until the end.

On the way, you’ll pass a turnoff for a scenic overlook called Aguereberry Point. But our guide for Racetrack Playa had told us that only those with special off-road tires should attempt the drive and that many people get stuck. So we skipped it. 

Hiking Telescope Peak

Eventually, you’ll arrive at the Wildrose Charcoal Kilns, one of the park’s most iconic historical landmarks. The beehive-shaped kilns were constructed in 1877 to supply charcoal to the nearby Modock Mines.

Just near the kilns is the trailhead for another popular Death Valley hike called Wildrose Peak. It might be a good alternative for those who aren’t quite up to the challenge of Telescope Peak, but as I have yet to try it, I can’t compare the two.

Hiking Telescope Peak

The road between the kilns and the Mahogany Campground is steep and very bumpy. You’ll definitely want to rent an SUV for this trip if you don’t already have one.

While we managed to make it, it was one of the more difficult roads I encountered at Death Valley. Also, always be sure to check the NPS website before your visit to confirm that the road is indeed open.

In between the kilns and Mahogany Campground is another campsite called Thorndike. If you don’t think your vehicle can make it up to Mahogany, you could stay at Thorndike and start the hike from there. This would be far from ideal, however, as it would add an additional strenuous few miles to what’s already a long hike.

On the other hand, if your car can indeed make the full journey, but if you happen to find the Mahogany Campground full, you could spend the night at Thorndike before parking outside Mahogany Campground the next morning.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak

The Mohagany Campground is free to camp at, though it’s first-come-first-served. Your ability to secure a spot, therefore, will largely depend on both the time of year you visit along with the day of the week.

As mentioned, while Telescope Peak is best hiked in summer, most people tend to avoid Death Valley as a whole during this time given the scorching heat at lower elevations. Therefore, you likely won’t have an issue securing a spot in the summer months.

While I can’t speak from experience, the campground is said to be most crowded in spring just after it opens, as well as early autumn before it starts snowing again.

Each campsite has its own picnic tables, while the public bathroom seems to have been recently refurbished. Temperatures are chilly at night due to the high elevation, but be sure to stay up for a little bit. The night stars here were some of the clearest I’ve ever seen!

Hiking Telescope Peak

Before embarking on the hike, I decided it would be best to clear the campsite first, and so I didn’t get started until 7:15. But with hiking Telescope Peak followed by returning to Furnace Creek all I had planned for the day, I’d have more than enough time.

As it turned out, I probably should’ve started the hike even later, as I would end up with too much free time in the scorching heat once I got back to the lower elevation.

When hiking Telescope Peak, you’ll momentarily forget that you’re in a desert region known for its extreme heat. Instead, you’ll encounter things like pine trees and bushes, and you’ll want to have on multiple layers to protect yourself from the cold.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak

As is commonly the case with mountain hikes, this one starts off rather uneventfully, as you’ll just find yourself walking through a forest.

But to your left, you’ll be able to overlook the lower portions of Death Valley. The lighting in the morning, however, is far from ideal, and it will look much more impressive during the return hike.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak

Eventually, the trees will become more and more scarce. And it’s from surprisingly early on in this hike that you’ll catch a glimpse of your final destination: Telescope Peak.

Sometimes, hikes like these can be monotonous, with largely unchanging views until the end. But fortunately, the remainder of the Telescope Peak hike has plenty of surprises in store.

The first half of the hike is relatively flat and the trail is quite easy to follow. And considering how you’ll have seen Telescope Peak from early on, there should be little doubt about where you’re supposed to go.

Hiking Telescope Peak

Eventually, you’ll walk past Roger’s Peak on your right. It’s recognizable for its rather unsightly cell phone tower that was apparently just added in the past couple of years (on that note, you’ll likely have service for at least some of this hike).

While there is an alternate trail that can take hikers up to Roger’s Peak, there’s no real reason to go there as far as I can tell. 

Continuing along the main Telescope Peak trail, it will start to curve so that you’ll now be heading southwest. This is the beginning of one of the most scenic parts of the hike.

Hiking Telescope Peak

If you’ve departed early in the morning, the view of the mountains to the west will be perfect at this time of day. And looking beyond them, you’ll even see the salt flats of Badwater Basin – the lowest point in the entire Western Hemisphere!

This tremendous contrast – one of the greatest vertical rises in the United States – is what makes hiking Telescope Peak such a special experience. 

As the trail makes some slight twists, you’ll briefly find yourself in a forested area, but it won’t be long before you can enjoy unobstructed views once again.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak

After another twist, you’ll be heading slightly southeast, and from here you’ll get a clear view of the summit for the remainder of the hike.

Furthermore, as you begin the final third of the trek, you’ll also be able to enjoy clear views of either side of the Panamint Range.

Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak
Hiking Telescope Peak

As mentioned, a major reason this hike can’t be done in the colder months (at least without special gear) is because it’s entirely covered in snow. But even during my late June hike, there were still large snow patches here and there.

It was quite surreal to see snow during summer in Death Valley, of all places!

Hiking Telescope Peak

The ascent during the first two-thirds of the hike is rather gradual. But things really start to pick up in intensity for the final stretch. On top of that, the higher you get, the more likely you are to deal with symptoms of altitude sickness.

And there’s no real way to acclimatize yourself in advance given how much of Death Valley is at sea level (or below). The best thing you can do, then, is take things slow and take breaks if you’re experiencing dizziness or extreme fatigue. 

Aside from drinking lots of water, some sugary snacks might also be helpful.

Hiking Telescope Peak

By far the most difficult part of the Telescope Peak hike is a section near the end with multiple switchbacks. But first, in my case, just getting to switchbacks was a challenge, as the rocks had spilled over much of the trail, largely obscuring it.

And as other parts of the trail were covered with patches of snow, I briefly lost sight of where I was supposed to go.

Hiking Telescope Peak

And so I decided to walk over a large pile of rocks in the middle of the hill, hoping it would give me a better vantage point. The rocks were unstable and it wasn’t easy, but I eventually spotted the trail again. 

I then had to carefully walk downhill over various obstacles to get myself back on track.

Then came the switchbacks, which were a serious workout. Much of the hike’s elevation gain seems to come from this final section which consists of nearly ten switchbacks in total. And each one seems to get more difficult than the next.

I also realized that I probably prepared a little too well for this hike, and all the water I’d brought was really weighing me down. Nevertheless, knowing that the end was almost near, I pushed myself to keep going. 

Hiking Telescope Peak

Finally, the switchbacks were over, and it was just a straight uphill climb to the peak. While the trail wasn’t that crowded, I could see several people already up there, basking in their accomplishments.

Telescope Peak offers stunning 360-degree views from 11,043 ft above sea level. As mentioned, the summit provides clear views of Badwater Basin, meaning the drop is a total of 11,325 feet (3,451 m)!

But how is there a tall mountain right next to the lowest point in the Americas?

Around 100 million years ago, an ancient oceanic plate began sinking beneath North America, which then pushed up the land next to it. The impact also caused multiple volcanoes to erupt, resulting in high mountain ranges. 

Later on, as the underlying crust grew thinner due to plates beneath the earth drifting apart, some mountains collapsed and ended up below sea level.

And that’s more or less why Death Valley now has low basins surrounded by high mountains like the Panamint Range.

Hiking Telescope Peak

While, supposedly, there used to be an actual telescope at the summit of Telescope Peak, I didn’t see one while I was there. And talking to another climber who’d done the hike multiple times, he said he’d never seen it during his prior hikes, either.

Hiking Telescope Peak

I usually like to get started on the return hike fairly soon rather than linger atop the summit. But I couldn’t take my eyes off of my surroundings.

Furthermore, this being both a strenuous and relatively obscure hike, it attracts a lot of adventurous and interesting travelers who were fun to chat with.

Eventually, though, it was finally time to make my way back to the campsite.

Hiking Telescope Peak

As is typically the case with out-and-back hikes, you’ll know exactly what to expect from the return hike. But with the sun higher in the sky, you can at least begin to enjoy the views of the basins and mountains to the east.

Hiking Telescope Peak

Feeling exhausted by the end of this long and grueling hike, the final stretch of the descent seemed to go on forever. But it was hard to complain amongst such beautiful surroundings.

Finally arriving at Mahogany Campground, I wanted more than anything to take a shower. But the nearest one was in Furnace Creek, and I’d have to wait until a couple of hours later until I made it back there.

Hiking Telescope Peak

Additional Info

As mentioned in the above guide to hiking Telescope Peak, you’ll want to spend the night prior to the hike at the Mahogany Campground. 

But you certainly wouldn’t want that to be your base for exploring the park as a whole. So where else should you stay? Planning all this out can be stressful and challenging. 

Given the park’s massive size, the most convenient base would be at one of the hotels in Furnace Creek, the park’s main ‘town.’

Unfortunately, however, all of the hotels and restaurants within Death Valley are owned by the Xanterra Corporation and they don’t come cheap. The different options include The RanchThe Inn at Death Valley and The Oasis.

If you don’t have the budget to splurge on those hotels, you’re left with two options: stay in a city outside the park or camp. First, let’s explore the best bases outside of Death Valley, all of which are located in Nevada.

Las Vegas

Las Vegas isn’t ideal for those doing longer adventures in the park. But if you only have a day in Death Valley, it serves as a fine base. The city is about two hours one-way between the city and the eastern pay station.

Tourists into gambling, nightlife and an all-around typical Las Vegas experience tend to stay on or near the Strip. This area is home to a myriad of hotels and casinos, many of which are household names, such as Mandalay Bay or Luxor.

Las Vegas, however, is a fast-growing city with new residential areas being built each year, and much of the greater metropolitan area feels surprisingly normal.

Some good choices outside of the strip area include Tahiti All-Suite ResortSouth Point Hotel or Aloft Henderson, just to name a few.

Pahrump

The small city of Pahrump is arguably the best base for Death Valley. It’s right in between Las Vegas and the park, or an hour each way from either.

It has lots of shopping and restaurant options, while many of the local casinos also feature hotels. My only experience was at the Saddle West Hotel Casino. While the rooms were nothing special, they did have all of the essentials and were reasonably priced.

Beatty

Beatty, Nevada is another convenient base for Death Valley, being only 50 minutes from Furnace Creek. Compared to Pahrump, however, it’s harder to reach for those coming from afar.

All in all, Beatty is much more charming than Pahrump but it also has fewer shopping and dining options. I stayed once at the Exchange Club Motel, which was fine as far as motels go. It seems to be run by the same management as the nearby Death Valley Inn (not to be confused with The Inn at Death Valley inside the park).

As discussed above, Death Valley is home to numerous campsites, and you’ll want to stay at the Mahogany Campground for the Telescope Peak hike.

But what about your other nights in Death Valley? The park’s most central and popular campsite is the one right in Furnace Creek near the Visitor Center. I spent a night there during one visit and it only cost $22 per night. But would I recommend it?

While the campsites themselves are cheap, consider the fact that the gas stations at Death Valley cost around double what they cost in Pahrump or Beatty.

Also keep in mind that the campsites lack showers. So if you’re hoping to shower after a long day, your only option will be to buy a pool pass from one of the Xanterra hotels which will grant you access to their showers. 

But at the time of writing, these passes go for a whopping $14 per person per day! After hiking Telescope Peak, I returned to Furnace Creek with plans to camp there. And so I had no choice but to pay this extortionate price to get clean.

Another downside of camping in Furnace Creek is that if you want to eat at a restaurant within the park instead of cooking at your campsite, you’re going to spend more than double what you would at a restaurant in a nearby city.

Taking all of this into consideration, you may even end up spending more by camping at Death Valley compared with booking a cheap hotel in Pahrump.

Another issue to consider when camping is that it can sometimes get extremely windy without warning in the desert. And the ground is so hard at the lower elevation campsites that you can’t use your tent stakes. (This is not an issue at the higher elevation campsites).

If you have an RV, of course, some of the issues above can be averted. (If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.)

Despite all of the issues, there’s still one major reason to camp in Furnace Creek (or nearby Stovepipe Wells): getting an early morning start for a hot low-elevation hike, such as the Golden Canyon/Gower Gulch loop hike.

In the end, the best way to enjoy a longer stay at Death Valley is to mix things up by camping and staying at hotels outside the park on alternate nights.

At the time of writing, Death Valley costs $30 to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $15, while those on motorcycles will be charged $25.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

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